Can minerals be extracted from the seafloor without environmental impacts?
A year ago, the Canadian mining company Nautilus Minerals was poised to launch a new industry: mining the deep ocean floor. All Nautilus had to do was finish building special equipment and arranging permits to work at a site it had leased off the shores of Papua New Guinea (PNG). Then it would commence grinding copper-rich rock on the seafloor into a slurry, vacuuming it up, and pumping it to a ship on the surface. The company would also recover precious metals such as gold and silver, as well as zinc and other commercially traded metals.
Nautilus’ plans alarmed many scientists. The mining was targeted at hydrothermal vents, where chemical-rich fluids spewing from the seafloor spur the accumulation of not only metals, but also lush communities of exotic life. Ever since deep-sea vents were first discovered in 1977, they have yielded a treasure trove of scientific clues about how our planet’s surface formed, how the oceans’ chemistry works, even how life may have started on Earth. What if a gold rush into these unique ecosystems were to produce a subsea version of the environmental damage that mining has caused on land?
“It seemed like Nautilus was in a real fast race to get the first mine on the seafloor,” said geophysicist Maurice Tivey of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). “A lot of people thought it was too early.”
Read the complete article in Oceanus.